14 Vesey Street: Genealogy of an Address A Brief History of the Ground Beneath the Home of Law by K. Jacob Ruppert, J.D.
From the three-part article appearing in the May, June and July 2007 issues of The New York County Lawyer, a publication of the New York County Lawyers' Association (NYCLA) to its membership of 10,000. This article is a gift to NYCLA on the occasion of its centennial. NYCLA’s Home of Law began as two buildings on three 25x100 foot lots in 1926: 12-14-16 Vesey. Together, they formed a patch of Manhattan that witnessed much of the history of young New York as its deeds passed from one notable New Yorker to another. These many buildings, both homes and businesses, have come and gone since Henry Hudson came to town, but buried deeply beneath their ethereal ruins are the accrued memories of the events of an emerging Gotham that continue to whisper their secrets over the din of foot falls above. We listen - not only in celebration of NYCLA’s Centennial milestone, but to remind us of the milestones of others that precede the place it now calls home. I. Colonial Ownership At the time William Nelson Cromwell purchased the property in 1926, he bought something that looked quite different than the Neo-Georgian façade here today: two warehouse/loft-looking buildings dating back as early as the early 1840s. Built considerably more for function than form, both buildings were five stories high with the 12 Vesey building having a 25-foot frontage. Fourteen-Sixteen Vesey was part of the contiguous building encompassing 14, 16, and 18 Vesey that had a 75-foot frontage. The firewall between 16 and 18 Vesey enabled the latter to remain when 14 and 16 Vesey were demolished to make way for NYCLA. The façade of 18 Vesey remains to this day providing contemporary urban archeologists a glimpse at what the thrice-wider original building looked like at the time of the purchase. Furthermore, this façade makes it one of the few lower Manhattan buildings that date back as far as the rebuilding of New York after the Great Fire of 1835. Streets of 18th Century Manhattan were loosely planned by the early Dutch settlers, unnumbered and muddy paths barely wide enough for passing carriages. Many descriptions of properties at the time were described by their looks or in feet from popular reference points. An early newspaper advertisement listed a home for sale that was “next to the house in which Cornelius Roosevelt, deceased, lived, opposite the tea water pump.” Vesey Street was no exception, a street named after the Rev. William Vesey (1674-1842), first rector of Trinity Church and the first to offer a catechism to Negro and Native American slaves. The Hosack Years to 1836 One of the earliest recorded owners of any one of our three Vesey lots is from the 1823 tax lists, which showed Henry McFarlan, then a director of the Fulton Fire Insurance Company, as owner of the building at 12 Vesey Street that once stood where the eastern third of the Association’s present building now stands. Early history of 14 Vesey reaches back as far as 1834 when it was the private home of Dr. David Hosack (1769-1835). Hosack was a leading physician of his day and an eminent botanist and mineralogist who had strong ties with both Princeton and Columbia. Hosack was considered one of New York's first citizens influential in social and civic affairs as well as in his profession. He was a founder of the New York Historical Society, American Academy of Fine Arts, and Bellevue Hospital. Early in his career in New York, he was a professor at King’s College (later Columbia University), conveniently located around the corner on Murray Street, which likely necessitated neighborhood digs on Vesey Street. Dr. Hosack was the son of a New York wine merchant who came to America to serve under Lord Jeffery Amherst in the French and Indian War. He attended Columbia and Princeton receiving a bachelor's degree from the latter in 1789. He studied medicine in New York and Philadelphia and later studied medicine and botany in the United Kingdom ultimately becoming, successively, professor of botany and materia-medica at Columbia College, professor of the theory and practice of physics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and president of the short-lived Rutgers Medical College, of which he was co-founder. He was also the founder and first president of the New York Horticultural Society, America’s first horticultural society. Besides being a predecessor-in-title to 14 Vesey Street, he was also the same to two other famous addresses. In 1801, he established the famous Elgin Botanical Garden, the first public botanical garden in America, located between 46th and 50th Streets and between Fifth and Madison Avenues. In 1811, he sold the Garden to the State of New York which then gave it to Columbia University (then Columbia College) in 1814, and is now on long term lease to the owners of Rockefeller Center. In 1828 Hosack bought the 540-acre Dutchess County estate of Dr. Samuel Bard, his former medical partner and laureate physician in his own right, where he lived until his death in 1835 at the age of 66. This estate is now popularly known as the Vanderbilt Estate of New Hyde Park, NY. Most notably, Hosack was close friends with both Aaron Burr, Jr. and Alexander Hamilton. As such, he served as the surgeon in attendance at their duel in 1804. He treated the mortally wounded Hamilton only to soon serve as one of his pallbearers (but not before submitting his bill of $50). Three years later, after Burr was tried for treason and acquitted, Hosack lent him cash to go abroad in order to escape the notoriety resulting from the trial. Later in life, Hosack rarely used his 14 Vesey Street home and sold it in January of 1834 to the New York Athenaeum, of which he was a founding member, for $26,437.50. The New York Athenaeum was a literary organization that was once dear to the hearts of many well-heeled New Yorkers and considered the chief literary asset of the City at the time. First established in 1824, it was modeled after the Liverpool Athenaeum that began in 1798 and later in Boston and Philadelphia. These organizations offered a library, reading room, small museum, lecture room, lecture programs and a laboratory for small scientific experiments. Feeding off of the ever-growing popularity of New York City around the world, a few of Manhattan’s leading capitalists decided to create the New York Athenaeum that would be “without an equal in the United States.” So, in March of 1824, while dining at the City Hotel, a few of New York’s leading capitalists and literati, some being Henry Brevoort, James Fenimore Cooper, William Gracie, Washington Irving, Rufus King and Hosack himself, formed the New York Athenaeum with its first meeting in the lobby of the City Hotel at 1:00 p.m. on December 13, 1824. In 1838, the organization merged with the New York Society Library (chartered 1754), then located at 348 Broadway, that exists to this day at 53 E. 79th Street, its home since 1937. The New York Athenaeum had considerable cash from its small but wealthy membership but was running at an annual deficit and needed alternative income. It was considering the Vesey Street property for a possible permanent home for the Athenaeum then ten years old. Hosack had other residences in Manhattan (actually, they belonged to his third wife, Magdalena Coster ), including 85 Chambers and in Kips Bay, and probably offered a vacant 14 Vesey to the New York Athenaeum. It is likely that the Athenaeum members were already familiar with the house given that Hosack had hosted literary and artistic salons as mentioned by William Cullen Bryant. The New York Athenaeum ultimately decided to simply rent the property. Part II: The Meeks, Astor and Cromwell-NYCLA Years. The Meeks Years, 1836-1908 The rental income from the Hosack’s Vesey Street home did not last long as it perished in the Great Fire of 1835 along with Hosack’s other three downtown properties. In a sense, Hosack perished too as he died of a stroke five days later. The scorched and snow-covered lot was sold in January of 1836 for $35,000. Recorded occupancy of the later building picks up in 1836 when laureate furniture master-craftsman, Joseph Meeks (1771-1868), moves in at 14-16 Vesey replacing his factory at 43 Broad Street that burned. Meeks, a first generation American born to Welsh and French Huguenot parents, unwittingly witnessed American history about him as a child. His New York Herald obituary records that his mother was the interpreter for General George Washington and the French Generals under Rochambeau. As a boy he often saw Washington, Lafayette, Wayne, Schuyler, von Steuben, Kosciusko, Polaski and Rochambeau in and out his parents’ home. On November 25, 1783, when the British forever sailed out of New York Harbor, Meeks, at the age of 12, was at the Battery amidst the mob toppling the Statute of St. George and sawing off the Royalist finials atop the fencing around it. As one of the founders of Tammany Hall, he was deeply political. Aged 90 at the beginning of the Civil War, he announced he would volunteer if necessary to defeat “the descendants of the Tories of the Revolution.” Meeks prospered here as Vesey Street was becoming the epicenter for household staples as furniture, dry-good and groceries. One should remember that down Vesey Street were the Vesey Street docks and Washington Market, the latter of which, by 1900, was the largest food market in North America. This access to foot traffic and shipping played an indispensable role in Meeks’ success. Dating back to its rustic beginnings in the 1770s, Washington Market, originally called Bear Market, started on farmland donated by Trinity Church. The market grew substantially and after the opening of the Erie Canal in the 1820s, its growth expanded to encompass the area of Washington, West, Partition (now Fulton), and Vesey Streets. Hundreds of independent vendors sold fruits, vegetables, specialty foods, wild game and livestock of any sort, unofficially extending the market farther as far north as the meatpacking district which can trace its roots to Washington Market. In 1915, annual trade for the market was estimated at $5 million (over $100M in present dollars), and the trade to hotels and restaurants alone fed an estimated one million people per day. The Vesey Street Ferry connecting Manhattan with Hoboken was an additional commercial artery (and access to cheaper residential rents by shop owners and dealers) to support the trade of not only Washington Market, but also the businesses of Vesey Street. Washington Market closed December 31, 1956 and was demolished in 1957. My family mourned its end as for decades we purchased Westphalian ham and German cheeses from Henry W. Rieger, a stall owner since 1896 and whose family opened the stall in 1825. The Washington Market area was condemned in the 1960s, ultimately paving the way for the erection of the World Trade Center. In these environs did the Meeks firm flourish. Not only was the bustling Vesey Street providing him customers, suppliers and transportation, but throughout the first half of the 19th Century, New York City was the center for the manufacture of high- end furniture in the U.S. The firm, run by three generations of Meeks from 1797 until 1869, was one of the principal furniture establishments in the city. Although Meeks produced a quality and style competitive with that of his distinguished contemporaries (Duncan Phyfe, Honore Lannuier, Alexander Roux), he did not achieve the commensurate fame. However, his firm provides an excellent case study in the 19th Century move from master craftsman to manufacturer. Likely apprenticing with his father, Joseph established his cabinet-making shop on Broad Street in 1797. Economic troubles began for his small business soon after the passing of the Non-Importation Act in 1806 and the Embargo Act a year later. By 1819 things picked up and he began to develop markets for his work in the South. The South found itself cut off from European imports due to protectionist policies passed by Congress as well as the fallout of the War of 1812. Meeting this demand for northern goods, Meeks established connections in Savannah and New Orleans, eventually expanding his product line selling “sideboards and bureaus, elegant armoires, ladies’ dressing tables, writing desks and tables…mahogany bedsteads, clocks and cases…first quality Windsor chairs…” By 1833, Joseph Meeks & Sons became one of the largest furniture firms in the city with a specialty in rococo revival. It is uncertain as to when Joseph Meeks retired from the firm, but upon its move to 14 Vesey Street, the name changed to J. & J.W. Meeks, named after two of his eight children, John and Joseph W. who continued the family business. It is by this name (always in large black stenciling on the underbelly of its furniture) that collectors, museums and auction houses place and date a piece as being made at the Vesey Street factory. Joseph Meeks died July 21, 1868 at his estate in Islip, Long Island at the age of 97. The New York Times reported that “[h]e was the oldest resident of New York who was born in the City.” Meeks and his sons and their families are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn. The Astor Years, 1908-1926 Although the J. & J.W. Meeks firm prospered in its 33 years at 14 Vesey, it did not last a year after the death of its patriarch in 1868. By the following year, Meeks’ sons permanently retired from the furniture business. By December of that year they had auctioned off their inventory and concentrated on the management of their father’s estate which held considerable commercial and residential real estate. By 1878, sons John and Joseph W. had died and their collective estates held not only the 14 Vesey Street address, but also 18, 26, 28 and 30 Vesey. On March 19, 1909, after ten years of litigation over the estate of Joseph W. Meeks, his heirs auctioned off the properties with all Vesey Street parcels going to William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor (1848-1919) (the “English House” of Astor), on behalf of the estate of his father, John Jacob Astor III (1822-1890), for $507,500.00. The estate already owned the Barclay Street half of the infamous Astor House hotel at the corner. William’s first cousin, John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912) (the “American House”) owned the Vesey Street half. Befitting of their notorious intra-familial rivalry , William purchased Nos. 8 and 10 Barclay Street, (the lots making up two- thirds of NYCLA’s back yard) thus surrounding his cousin’s holdings in the ancestral Astor Family property. Astor House was demolished in 1913, a year after John Jacob Astor IV perished on the Titanic. In 1925, the son of William Waldorf Astor, John Jacob Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor and 1st Baron Astor of Hever (1886-1971), sold his father’s half to the developers of the Transportation Building that exists today at 225 Broadway. In 1917, the son of John Jacob Astor IV, William Vincent Astor (1891-1959), completed an office building very reminiscent of the old hotel that remains to this day at 217 Broadway (with Staples as its anchor tenant) only to sell it in 1955 ending 155 years of Astor Family ownership of this one block of Broadway. The Cromwell-NYCLA Years William Vincent Astor (“Vincent”) was now in control of his late father’s Vesey Street holdings. William Nelson Cromwell (1854-1948) was surely no stranger to the Astor family throughout his phenomenal career as attorney, entrepreneur, diplomat and philanthropist. Both were active members of the Pilgrims Society and certainly Cromwell knew a few generations of Astors during his lifetime. In 1926, John Jacob Astor 2nd put up for sale 12-14-16 Vesey Street/6-8-10 Barclay Street that he inherited from his father in 1919. Since 1923, Cromwell had been looking for a permanent home for the New York County Lawyers’ Association established 15 years earlier. In May of 1926, Cromwell bought the 75 by 200-foot property for $1 million dollars and donated the Vesey Street half to the Association for the construction for its new building. Reaching as far into the future as possible in order to protect his intent to ensure the future of NYCLA, he placed a restrictive covenant on the deed vowing that the land never be used for “commercial, residential, restaurant or business purposes.” He contributed another $500,000 to the cost of construction and was instrumental in landing Cass Gilbert as its architect. NYCLA opened the doors of its new home on May 27, 1930. NYCLA’s expansion eventually led to its purchase of what Cromwell kept for himself back in 1926, Nos. 6-8-10 Barclay. At some time before his death, Cromwell divested himself of these Barclay Street properties with one of the subsequent owners being the Mutual Life Insurance Company which sold them in 1947. In May of 1961, NYCLA purchased these lots from another owner for $440,000 and they remained with the Association until the mid- 1980s.
Part III: Ancestral Tenants of Present Day 14 Vesey 12 Vesey One of the earliest tenants of what is now the eastern third of NYCLA’s building was Bininger & Cozzens. Advertising in the early 1850s, it was a wine and mineral water distributor and the sole agents for the Eastern U.S. for Longworth’s Ohio Wines. One of the larger tenants at the same time was Moulton, Plimpton, Williams & Co., importers and jobbers of dry goods. Formerly at 47 Broadway, they moved in May 15, 1853 and occupied all of the ground and second floors of 12 Vesey all the way through to 6 Barclay. They boasted stock numbers and price tags on all items and a sales slogan that “one man’s dollar is as good as another’s.” It was likely the largest dry goods store in the downtown area with 10,000 square feet and eight departments: print & gingham, dress goods, woolen goods & menswear, domestic goods, carpet & oil cloth, white goods & embroidery, hosiery & gloves, and Yankee notions. It signed a six-year lease but within a year it found itself advertising for sub-tenants to help with the rent. By October 1854, it vacated the building and subsequently advertised frantically for lessees. The space still lent itself to dry-goods as the Cooperative Dry Goods Store began advertising at that address in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle by March of 1869. 12 Vesey also had its share of woes. Fire badly damaged part of it in June of 1890 when the top floor, in the offices of cane makers, Schlichting & Rendsburg, caught fire. The fire had burst through the skylight and ignited the tar on the roof of the Astor House Hotel sending top floor guests into a panic. Other tenants of 12 Vesey who suffered damage were Isaac Somers & Co., and E. B. Benjamin & Co., a chemical supply dealer and owner of 12 Vesey and 6 Barclay at the time. Edmund Burke Benjamin (1828-1894) was a Canadian who moved to San Francisco in 1854, in the wake of the Gold Rush, and developed a successful business in wholesale merchandise. In 1857 he returned to New York City where he quite successfully engaged in the retail sale of specialty chemicals under the name of E. B. Benjamin & Co. The German Electric Agency moved in on May 1, 1892 selling “electric belts and appliances” that claimed to cure dyspepsia, kidney disease, constipation, rheumatism, sciatica, “falling of the womb” and “suppressed menses” to name a few. Isaac Sommers & Co. occupied the entire ground floor and basements of 12 Vesey through to 6 Barclay. The business was founded by Sommers in 1866 after arriving from his native Germany about 1848. He carried many international wines and liquors including Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Maryland ryes and whiskies. Sommers either owned the building or the lease as early as 1884 as records show that he leased the site to Kohler & Frohling & Co., a major California wine distributor. A Swiss jeweler and owner of numerous jewelry and watch patents, Frederic Ecaubert (d. 1924), set up shop on the entire third floor in 1880 and remained throughout the decade. He was known to have “many years experience in this line and is a skilled workman, possessing inventive genius and technical skill.” More dramatic stories of 12 Vesey include “The Vesey Street Catastrophe” that occurred at 5:00 p.m. April 23, 1853. Stephen Kennedy, a 20-year old Irish immigrant who had arrived in America two months earlier, was painting the façade of the building from a scaffold. A rope failed and he and his two more-fortunate co-workers fell 50 feet. The event was covered by the New York Times and the New York Illustrated News. 14-16 Vesey This address, the western two-thirds of the present building, was primarily a retail space for dry-goods and foods during the mid-19th Century. Besides the Washington Market, the anchor store on the block was the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., now known as A& P, the world’s largest grocer. Perkins, Stern & Co., a large distributor for California wines (and a subsidiary of Kohler & Frohling & Co.), was a tenant at this time. “[T]ake the pure juices of the native grape,” they urged, “and you will promote the truest temperance!” By the 1880s, the first block of Vesey Street turned toward the printing and bookbinding industries that supported the growing publishing empires of Park Place. Vesey Street was dominated by this industry until 1900. A few of the publisher-tenants that called 14-16 Vesey home during The Gilded Age were Grogan & Murtha , Thitchner & Glastaeter, S.T. Miis, Rogers & Sherwood , Central Press & Publishing (12 Vesey), and The Architectural Record Co., whose Architectural Record was later bought by McGraw-Hill that still publishes the monthly magazine today. Thitchner & Glastaeter, started in 1862, was a printing company whose co-owner and artist, James Glastaeter, was known for making improvements in roller-boxes and job presses in the industry. He apprenticed with Thomas E. Sutton in Morrisania and, like many other Vesey street merchants, lived in New Jersey (Rutherford Park). When rushing to catch the midnight elevated train at “Bleecker-street and South Fifth-avenue,” he fell to his death. The bookbinding firm of S. T. Miis had a comparable employee mishap when in August of 1883, 23-year old Henry Grace was loading books onto the dumbwaiter (surely not physically far from the forgotten one now in the walls of NYCLA). He climbed into it to better arrange the cargo and the cable broke giving him a dislocated left hip and several broken ribs upon arrival at the ground floor. As in 1873, the great economic depression of 1893 caused many tenants of 12-14-16 Vesey to fail. Canda & Kane, dealers in building materials, folded by October of 1893, not to mention many of the smaller publishing operations in the area. One model example was notable publisher J. W. Lovell. Born in Montreal, John Wurtele Lovell (1853-1932) came to Manhattan in 1878 to open his publishing firm and moved to 14 Vesey Street in 1882. In an effort to make classic literature affordable to the common household, he created Lovell’s Library, a literary classics series in paperback that he sold for 10 to 30 cents each. Lovell was the first American publisher of Kipling and Barrie. At the crest of his business in the 1880s, he was selling 7 million copies of books a year and his 14 Vesey Street store had 4,000 titles on hand. Gradually, his interests expanded and he founded many subsidiary firms that were absorbed into the US Book Company for which he served as president. Like many others, the US Book Company failed in the panic of 1893 and thereafter he devoted himself to his real estate interests. A new tenant of a completely different character moved into the former Lovell space in the summer of 1895. The Vesey St. Cycle Company offered a retail bicycle shop and riding school to complement its “uptown” location at Lexington Avenue and 43rd Street. Kindly vacate the premises… At the time of the 1926 sale to William Nelson Cromwell, tenants were given their walking papers and started looking for other addresses. Goodenough & Woglom, dealers in history learning aids and Sunday school supplies, moved from 14 Vesey to 296 Broadway. G&W had been doing business in lower Manhattan for nearly 80 years. Progenitor Edward Goodenough at the time of his death was the oldest bookseller in New York having begun his apprenticeship in 1823 with the Methodist Book Concern (still around at 150 Fifth Avenue). He worked for the Methodists until he partnered with H. Frank Woglom in 1850 and opened Goodenough & Woglom at 122 Nassau Street. The firm focused primarily on religious publications but branched out in the early 1880s when Goodenough’s son-in-law, William Harris, joined the firm and started a monthly magazine called Woman. The firm continued until the 1940s. Another notable ousted tenant was Keeler’s Art Gallery and Auction Rooms that occupied the first floor and basement of 12 Vesey. For more than 50 years it had been a resort for the business class who were interested in art and antiques of all kinds, from cigar-store wooden Indians to marble statutes to oil paintings of the greater and lesser masters. George W. Keeler began and ended the business at this address and was 85 years old when the building went up for sale. The gallery had many notable patrons including publishers William Cullen Bryant, James Gordon Bennett and Henry J. Raymond. Horace Greely used to inspect the stock of old books and fall asleep in a chair while reading. The regulars of the gallery grew to know one another and formed “The Nut Club”, a salon of sorts of collectors and armchair antiquariats. Mitchell-Rand Manufacturing Company, manufacturer of electrical insulation and part of a triumvirate of local Mitchell-Rand companies, bought the building at 51 Murray Street in 1929 when demolition was eminent. The business remained there until 1955 and ultimately sold its building in 1963. Without doubt the most popular tenant of 14 Vesey was the Real Estate Exchange, the heart of the commercial auction profession of the day. Owned by the Auctioneers’ Association, nearly all real estate auctions, both private and public, were conducted here. Formerly located in the “stuffy” quarters at 161 Broadway between Liberty and Cortlandt Streets, the Exchange moved to 14-16 Vesey Street in 1905, lured by bigger and brighter auction rooms. The move nearly five blocks north was a gamble as the real estate market was concentrated further down Broadway. As hoped, the real estate market followed them and soon the building quickly became known as the Vesey Street Salesroom. Of course, when 14-16 Vesey was bought by Cromwell, the Exchange had to begin their search anew. However, Fortune smiled again as the Exchange found space in the next block at 56 Vesey, on land now occupied by the US Post Office. The Exchange moved out by September 1, 1926 (about three months after the sale to Cromwell) and remained down the street until May of 1931 when its building was bought by the Federal Government to build the post office, a WPA project. Its later successive addresses were 18 Vesey (1931) and 20 Vesey (1941). The Exchange remained on Vesey Street until the mid-1950s. Of course, the rich history that was 12-14-16 Vesey certainly did not end with the Cromwell purchase of 1926. NYCLA has contributed exponentially to the glory and history of New York City for the past 100 years, and shall do so for another as it continues to be the nucleus of the legal profession in lower Manhattan. I am honored to have served the Association and, in a small way, to have contributed to the anthology of memories of these three patient and plain plots of property.
K. Jacob Ruppert, Esq. is the Judicial Law Clerk to Hon. Stephen B. Beasley of the 11th Judicial District Court of the State of Louisiana and served as Senior Program Attorney for the NYCLA CLE Institute from 2001 to 2004. Born in New Orleans, he comes from a deeply-rooted New York family and is an ardent historian of lower Manhattan and Yorkville. Ruppert’s article In re John Barleycorn: NYCLA’s Role in the Repeal of Prohibition was published by The County Lawyer in October and November, 2005. His current writing projects include articles on the late Justice Fred J. Cassibry of Louisiana and the forgotten estates of Point View in Rumson, NJ and Linwood in Rhinebeck, NY. Jacob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.